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Appellate Review Of Sentencing: Giving Deference To The Trial Court


Buford v. United States

Sentencing: an appellate court should give deference to the trial court’s interpretation of the Sentencing Guidelines as to whether an offender’s prior convictions were ‘consolidated’ for sentencing.

Buford v. United States 121 S.Ct 1276

Decided: March 20, 2001 Supreme Court of the United States

Issue: Defendant had been sentenced to 188 months in prison on the basis that she was a ‘career offender’ as defined in the Sentencing Guidelines. The Defendant appealed.  The Court of Appeals decided that it was inappropriate to review the original decision de novo (i.e. looking at it completely afresh – as if for the first time) and instead reviewed the earlier decision ‘deferentially’. Therefore, in the absence of any evidence to suggest that the decision was ‘clearly erroneous’, the original decision was upheld. Buford argued that a de novo review ought to have taken place.

Holding: The US Supreme Court held unanimously that where an appellate court reviews the way a trial court has determined the question of whether an offender’s prior convictions were consolidated for the purposes of sentencing, a deferential review is appropriate. Essentially, the trial court is in a better position than an appellate court to decide whether, based on the circumstances under consideration, the imposition of a given sentence under the Sentencing Guidelines is justified.

Facts: Paula Buford pleaded guilty to armed bank robbery in federal court (US District Court , Eastern District of Wisconsin). The length of her sentence would be determined on whether she was deemed to be a ‘career offender’; defined under the US Sentencing Guidelines as an offender with at least two prior felony convictions for violent or drug-related crime. Under the Guidelines a sentencing judge must count as a single prior conviction, a series of “related” convictions where those offences were consolidated for the purposes of sentencing. Furthermore it has been held that two prior convictions may be regarded as “functionallyconsolidated” for the purpose of sentencing (and therefore “related”) even where there was no formal order of consolidation, United States v. Joseph 516 U.S. 847. This covers those situations where the prior convictions were “factually and logically related, and sentencing was joint”.

Buford had five previous convictions. Four were clearly related; concerning a series of gas station robberies which were the subject of a single indictment to which Buford had pleaded guilty  at the same time in the same court.

On searching Buford’s house after her arrest for the robberies, the police had discovered cocaine and she had also been charged with possession with intent to deliver under a separate indictment.

Buford argued that these five ought to be regarded as one prior ‘related’ conviction. She pointed out that the State had sent all five offenses to the same sentencing judge who heard sentencing arguments for all five at the same time and who ordered the sentences for all five crimes to run concurrently. She also argued that the robberies were committed to fund her drug habit.

The District Court had rejected Buford’s arguments – noting the Government’s submissions that she had pleaded guilty to the drug charge in a different hearing on a different date. On sentencing, one prosecutor appeared for the drugs charge and another one for the four robberies. The sentencing court had entered two separate judgments. The four robberies and one drugs offense were deemed to be two separate convictions; she was deemed to be a ‘career offender’ and sentenced accordingly.

The Court of Appeals, whilst accepting that the question as to whether there was “functional consolidation” here was a close one, took the view that the earlier decision ought to be reviewed deferentially and affirmed the decision. The Supreme Court confirmed that this was the correct approach.

Legal analysis. The Supreme Court considered this question in light of the fact that some Circuits had on occasion seen fit to review the relatedness question de novo – i.e. looking at the whole set of circumstances afresh – for example, see United States v. Garcia, 506 U.S. 902. Clarification was therefore required.

The Supreme Court took the view that the District Court is the best forum to decide whether two or more prior convictions were ‘related’ for sentencing purposes. The district court has special competence in this area  – i.e. it deals with trial and sentencing practices  – including consolidation orders, on a day-to-day basis and is extremely familiar with the procedures; far more so than an appellate court. The argument is that it is the best forum for determining what does and what does not constitute “functional consolidation” in individual circumstances.

Buford also attempted to argue that a de novo review of her case at appellate level would help to bring greater clarification and consistency in sentencing. The Supreme Court rejected this also; noting that the question to be determined centered around a very particular set of circumstances concerning a minor question of sentencing law. Her case had to be decided on consideration of a very particular set of facts and it was decided that the District Court was generally the best place for those facts to be considered.